CESNUR - center for studies on new religions
Department Seal 2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000


The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom in the period covered by this report. The Government promoted and Congress adopted a new religious law designed to bring other religious entities closer to the legal status enjoyed by the Catholic Church; however, the Catholic Church retained an advantaged position. The new law entered into force in late March 2000.

Both government policy and the generally amicable relationship among religions in society contribute to the free practice of religion.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels generally protects this right in full, and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors.

Church and state are officially separate. However, the Catholic Church enjoys a privileged position among religions and receives preferential treatment. The Catholic Church's special legal position stems from historical factors; the Church predates the Chilean national State, and Roman Catholicism was the official state religion until promulgation of the 1925 Constitution. At the time, the Government and the Vatican agreed on an unwritten tacit concordat to govern treatment of the Church, placing it outside government regulation.

Religious faiths and related organizations must register with the Ministry of Justice as a foundation, corporation, or religiously affiliated sports club to receive tax exempt status and the right to collect funds. Groups without juridical status still may worship, but do not enjoy the tax status, fund collection rights, and other benefits that come with legal recognition. Some 800 religious faiths and related organizations are registered with the Ministry of Justice. Government refusal to register a religious group, or withdrawal of its legal status, is rare, and generally has stemmed from misuse of funds by the group or widespread criminal allegations.

The Catholic Church is not governed by the same regulations as other religions; it does not have to register with the Ministry of Justice and enjoys "public right" ("derecho publico") status. Until March 2000, the only other church body with this legal status was the Antioch Orthodox Church. "Derecho publico" status provides that a church cannot lose its juridical standing administratively; in the case of the Catholic Church, it further means that the body cannot have its status challenged at all. Until March 2000, all other religions, and groups affiliated with other religions, enjoyed "private rights" ("derecho privado"), which allowed for the lifting of status administratively. The Antioch Orthodox Church received its "derecho publico" status in the early 1970's due to a law passed during the administration of former President Salvador Allende. However, its status theoretically could be challenged in court, which is not the case with the Catholic Church.

On July 6, 1999, the Senate approved a new religious law ("ley de culto"). Approval came after the legislation was reworded to make clear that the status historically enjoyed by the Catholic Church would not be affected by the new law. The legislation entered into effect in late March 2000. Among other provisions, it bestows the same legal status ("derecho publico") that the Catholic Church previously enjoyed upon all other faiths. This removed the possibility of other faiths having their legal status challenged administratively (their status still may be challenged in court; reflecting its historical position, the legal status of the Catholic Church may not be challenged legally).

The new religion law removed the ability of the State to dissolve religious entities by decree. Instead, this only may occur after a judicial review begun by a complaint filed by the semiautonomous Council for the Defense of the State (CDE), which is the official entity charged with defense of the State's legal interests.

Some 800 religious faiths and related organizations are registered with the Ministry of Justice. Under the new religious law, the Justice Ministry cannot refuse to accept a registry petition, but it can object to the petition within 90 days on the grounds that all legal requisites to register have not been satisfied. The questioned body then has 60 days to bring itself into conformity with the objections raised by the Ministry or challenge the Ministry's observations in court. The Catholic Church does not have to be registered with the Justice Ministry.

Religious Demography

The 1992 census (the latest official figures available) placed the total population over 14 at 9,660,367. (The census does not break down religion for persons under age 14.) Of this group, 7,409,528 persons were identified as Catholic. This represents approximately 77 percent of the population over 14 years of age.

The term Evangelical in Chile is used to refer to all non-Catholic Christian churches with the exception of the Orthodox (Greek, Persian, Serbian, Armenian) Churches and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Most Evangelicals (approximately 90 percent) are Pentecostal. The 1992 census used both "Protestant" and "Evangelical" to ask about religion, though the terms are considered interchangeable. Evangelicals totaled 1,198,385 persons, or 12 percent of the population over the age of 14. Those identifying themselves with the term Protestant accounted for 80,259 persons, less than 1 percent of the population. In the census, atheists and those "indifferent" totaled 562,285, or approximately 6 percent of the population over the age of 14. All other religions totaled 409,910 persons, or slightly over 4 percent.

In 1997 spokespersons for Protestant organizations estimated the number of evangelical Christians in the country at between 1.8 and 2 million persons. Other estimates were as high as 3 million. The active Jewish population is estimated to be around 30,000. The number of Protestants has grown steadily with each census since 1930, when only 1.5 percent of the population claimed to be Protestant. The relative percentage of Catholics falls as one goes down the socioeconomic ladder. A 1991 survey found that 93.4 percent of high-income respondents indicated they were Catholic; the proportions declined to 75.2 percent in the middle-income group, and to 69 percent among those in the lower-income group. The survey found that 22 percent of persons at the lower-income levels were Protestants. A June 1998 national survey conducted by the Center for Public Studies (CEP) suggested that 43 percent of Evangelicals were converts from another religion; 98 percent of Catholics had been born into that religion.

The CEP study also found that 8 out of 10 citizens believe in the existence of God, while 14 percent were doubtful and only 2 percent declared themselves atheists. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Catholics, 16 percent identified themselves as Evangelicals, 7 percent said they had no religion, 4 percent adhered to other religions, and 1 percent did not answer.

The CEP poll also found that 18 percent of persons claimed to attend a church or temple at least once a week. A 1995 CEP survey placed this figure at 27 percent. In the 1998 survey, 29 percent of persons said that they had never attended a church. Thirty-two percent said that they prayed at least once a day and 15 percent said that they never prayed.

While 51 percent of those surveyed expressed "full or great" confidence in their religious organization, two-thirds believed that churches should not try to influence voting decisions or Government actions. Some non-Catholics regard membership in the Christian Democratic Party as contrary to their philosophical beliefs. Several prominent politicians are not Catholic, including the President. There are no Evangelical members of Congress.

There are a wide variety of active faiths. In addition to the dominant Catholic Church and the Pentecostal Methodist Church, the Wesleyan Church, Lutheran Church, Reformed Evangelical Church, Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Anglican Church, Methodist Church, and the Patriarch of Antioch Orthodox Church also are active. The Mormons are active, and there is a Unification Church. Other faiths include Judaism, Islam, and the Baha'i faith. Members of all major faiths are concentrated in the capital, with the Catholic, Evangelical, and Pentecostal churches also active in other regions of the country. Jewish congregations also exist in Valparaiso, Vina del Mar, Valdivia, Temuco, Concepcion, and Iquique (though there is no synagogue in the latter city).

Foreign missionaries operate freely, and many priests are of foreign origin.

Schools are required to offer religious education twice a week, on an optional basis, through middle school. It is mandatory to teach the creed requested by parents, although enforcement is sometimes lax.

All major faiths participated in a human rights "dialog table" held by the Defense Minister. In addition to Catholic events, government officials attend major Protestant and Jewish religious and other ceremonies. New President Lagos, for example, attended Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in early May, along with the Defense and Interior Ministers.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom in the period covered by this report. The Government promoted and Congress adopted a new religious law designed to bring other religious entities closer to the legal status enjoyed by the Catholic Church; however, the Catholic Church retained an advantaged position.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor United States citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

II. Societal Attitudes

Citizens generally are tolerant of religious differences, although some discrimination occurs. A bill supported by the executive branch is pending in Congress to outlaw acts of discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, and the new religion law also includes a clause against religious discrimination. Before passage of the new religion law, the country's Protestants assert that the Government discriminates against them, based upon differing legal status afforded to non-Catholics. They cite the absence of Protestant armed forces chaplains (all chaplains are Catholic), difficulties for pastors to visit military hospitals, and the predominantly Catholic religious education in public schools. Military recruits, whatever their religion, often have to attend Catholic events involving their unit, and being a Catholic is considered beneficial to one's military career.

Non-Catholic clergymen sometimes have difficulties gaining access to prisons and public hospitals; access is at the discretion of administrators. Catholic priests usually do not face such difficulties.

In April 2000, a small group of local Nazis attempted to hold an international Nazi ideological conference. The Government, Congress, and a wide array of societal groups criticized the attempt to hold this meeting. The Government gave orders to immigration authorities to prevent known Nazis from entering the country. On the eve of the scheduled conference, the Chilean organizer of the event was arrested by police and held for several days for previously passing false checks. The meeting was held clandestinely with only a handful of participants (one report said six); almost no persons from abroad attended.

Local Nazis continue to announce their intention to form a political party called the "New Fatherland Society" ("Patria Nueva Sociedad"). This would be the first Nazi political party in the country since the National Socialist Workers Party lost its legal status in 1969. It is unclear whether such a party would be deemed unconstitutional; most analysts question the ability of local Nazis to reach the threshold of required signatures to try to register a party.

Ecumenical groups exist, although they often are formed on an ad hoc basis, depending on the issue involved.

III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights.

U.S. Embassy representatives have met with a wide variety of religious leaders, including Santiago's Archbishop and key representatives of Evangelical and Jewish organizations. Informal contact is maintained with representatives and leaders of several other faiths.

As appropriate, embassy officials have cooperated on programs such as anti-drug efforts with church-affiliated groups and the B'nai B'rith.

[end of document]

Western Hemisphere Index | Table of Contents |

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]